Art on High: Beat Poets on the Fire Lookouts

What was Jack Kerouac doing on top of a North Cascade peak?

By Allison Williams August 1, 2013 Published in the August 2013 issue of Seattle Met

Gary Snyder Copper Ridge

What’s the NorthCascades equivalent of a deserted island? Desolation Peak, 16 miles by boat from the nearest road and 6,102 feet tall, topped with a simple one-room cabin. Every summer, a single worker trudges up the remote trail, hunkers down in the 81-year-old hut, and peers in all directions for signs of forest fire. 

And when Beat poets manned that sky-high deserted island and others like it, they gave the North Cascades a new claim to fame—an artistic one.

Gary Snyder was the first poet to get a job as a fire lookout, manning the now-gone station atop Crater Mountain in 1952 while writing and studying Zen; his old friend and fellow poet Philip Whalen took a nearby post the next year. Then, on the night of a now-famous 1955 poetry reading in San Francisco, Snyder was introduced to the young Jack Kerouac. (Allen Ginsberg, drunk on wine to calm his nerves, did the introducing before going onstage to perform a new poem called “Howl.”) Snyder convinced Kerouac to try a stint as a fire lookout, since he himself—a burgeoning anarchist, albeit a pacifist—had been banned due to McCarthy-era blacklisting. 

And so Kerouac went up Desolation Peak for the summer of 1956, packing no smokes (he hoped to quit tobacco cold turkey) and a single book: A Buddhist Bible. Like his Zen-practicing poet buddies, he planned to meditate on emptiness. By day 10, reports John Suiter in his book Poets on the Peaks, Kerouac was writing the words “Time drags” in his journal and smoking coffee grounds. “I will come face to face with God…” he predicted. “But instead I’d come face to face with myself, no liquor, no drugs, no chance of faking it.”  

Synder wrote letters to Kerouac to prepare him for hardship but worried about his buddy anyway. “It turned out I was right. He didn’t like being alone,” Snyder says. Now 83 and living in California, he says, “the opportunity to keep watching the ongoing changes in weather and light over vast space” is what he misses most.

Kerouac later wrote about the summer in Desolation Angels and The Dharma Bums, giving his pal Snyder the pseudonym Japhy Ryder. Snyder himself penned poems about the experience throughout his life; “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout” concludes:


I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.


Dozens of less-famous men and women have been North Cascades fire lookouts in the years since; starting in the late 1960s, one man, Gerry Cook, manned all three remaining lookouts: Desolation, Copper, and Sourdough. Then a college student, he “read, read, read,” sometimes 50 books a season, and drew landscapes. “At some times it felt like a prison sentence, other times it felt like euphoria,” he says. Cook spent nearly his entire career on the North Cascades National Park staff and for almost 15 years taught a class on fire lookouts at the North Cascades Institute on Ross Lake. A highlight: befriending Snyder through what Cook calls “a kind of cult or fraternity” of ex-lookouts.

Of the North Cascades National Park’s three remaining fire lookouts, only Desolation is still regularly staffed. The lone ranger there still operates the same compasslike Osborne Fire Finder used by Kerouac; the apparatus is less intrusive to the wilderness than fire-spotting airplane flights, and cheaper, too. Though the post is as far from civilization as it’s ever been, the ranger there now gets hundreds of visitors every year, often hikers making a Beats pilgrimage. 

Kerouac, for his part, wrote prolifically from his perch and reveled in his solitary adventure, but by the end just wanted off that mountain. “Enough of rocks and trees and yalloping y-birds,” he wrote, reports Suiter. “I wanta go where there’s lamps and telephones and rumpled couches with women on them.”

Published: August 2013

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